Sunday, 24 January 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 8

A particularly strange batch this time around, as I delve into some corners of nineties anime that would probably have been better left unexplored.  Still, it hasn't all been doom and gloom and horrifying tentacle sex.  This session's also managed to turn into something of a Masamune Shirow retrospective, even if I've failed to cover my personal favourite adaptation of his work and one of my all-time favourite films, Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell.

I guess that one gets saved for a special occasion; I haven't yet given up on the hope of doing one of these where everything is actually good.  But in the meantime it's the usual case of taking the great with the mediocre and utterly awful, and so we have: Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, New Dominion Tank Police, Street Fighter 2: The Movie and the very first adaption of Appleseed...

Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, 1989, Hideki Takayama

Legend of the Overfiend is notorious for one reason: it's the film that introduced the notion of tentacle rape as a genre to the West.  And for that selfsame reason I didn't exactly rush to see it.  I mean, to say the absolute sodding least.

You might say that a completionist spirit led me here, but actually I think I'd just convinced myself - having failed to be shocked by so much anime that was probably shocking in its day - that Legend probably wasn't half as bad as its reputation.  And in a sense, I was right.  For a start, the animation is pretty dreadful, which goes a great way to declawing the interminable scenes of violence, be it sexual or otherwise.  And for another start, it's achingly stupid and just so basically bad in so many fundamental ways - script, direction, animation, stuff like that - that it's difficult to take seriously.

Still, it's a pretty damn sordid and demoralizing experience all told.  I've seen the film defended on the grounds that it's more misanthropic than it is misogynistic, and maybe there's a grain of truth to that, but you know what?  You don't see any men getting raped anywhere, even if quite a few do get exploded.  No, what really made the film all but unwatchable for me was the sense that no one among the makers understood on any level that women were people, that they might conceivably serve some function that didn't involve sex or murder, and - somehow worst of all - that the horrendousness it portrays would leave any meaningful impact.  I mean, if you can't craft characters who react to their experiences from scene to scene then that's just plain bad writing, regardless of how depressingly horrid it might make your creation.

But let's divert just ever so slightly to admit that I didn't altogether hate every minute of Legend of the Overfiend.  The thing is, like so much of what I've talked about here, this was actually an OVA originally, and things do noticeably pick up in the last third.  In fact, once the titular overfiend appeared and the filmmakers tired of throwing about rape and death to little actual purpose and the animation quality picked up to a startling degree, I was shocked to discover that I was kind of entertained.  I mean, not so much that it erased my basic loathing of the first two thirds, but enough to surprise me at least, and enough to make me think that if the makers hadn't been so determined to construct something rancid and shocking then there was the basis of a solid story in here somewhere.

I suppose I thought on some level that I needed to see Legend of the Overfiend.  Now I'm more of the opinion that no one really needs to see Legend of the Overfiend.  It's basically vile, and only occasionally does that vileness take imaginative forms that give it some value as a work of horror.  Or to put it another way, just because something does a thing first, that does not necessarily make that thing worth doing.

New Dominion Tank Police, 1993, dir: Noboru Furuse

I actually have this and its preceding OVA on VHS, which makes me feel kind of old.  Anyway, I remember not rating it greatly the first time around, having come to it on the back of Dominion Tank Police, a fact that befuddled me slightly on a rewatch because it's really a lot of fun.  Tank Police in whatever its incarnation is a creation of the famed Masamune Shirow, known also for the ever-expanding Appleseed franchise but primarily for Ghost in the Shell, and generally a man who was a name to conjure with in the early nineties.  The Tank Police universe sees him in light-hearted and broadly satiric mode, with a story set in the unimaginably distant future of 2016 and the fictional city of Newport, Japan, in which crime and terror levels are perceived to have escalated to such an absurd degree that the police have deemed arming themselves with tanks a reasonable measure.

Because that would never happen, right?

Which is to say that New Dominion Tank Police has lost a little of its edge in the nearly three decades since its original release, as reality caught up with and then overtook it in increasingly depressing ways - but that actually makes it easier to enjoy, so let's not focus entirely on the negatives.  New Dominion Tank Police is, if I remember rightly, a lot more grounded than the original miniseries was, and content to coast off parodying cop shows and other cliches, but there's still plenty to enjoy here, and a couple of the six episodes are genuinely excellent.  The animation is also terrific in places, particularly the opening sequence, and generally I found myself enjoying it a great deal more than I'd expected to.  It's frequently funny, some of the action is terrific, the characters are likable and its only real weakness is a saggy arc plot with some lackluster corporate villains.  If you can find it cheaply, as you probably can, then I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, but particularly if you have any affection for the Patlabor TV series, which it closely resembles.

Street Fighter 2: The Movie, 1994, dir: Gisaburo Sugii

If you imagine that an anime movie should exist of the (at the time) hugely popular video game Street Fighter 2, and if you imagine that huge quantities of money were thrown at it, and if you further imagine that its main goal was not to tell a coherent story with rich, three dimensional characters but to cram as much Street Fighter 2-ishness as possible into an hour and a half run-time then - congratulations! - you've probably imagined something an awfully lot like Street Fighter 2: The Movie.  The story, if one can so abuse the word, involves the villainous Bison stalking the various fighters from the series with his evil organisation Shadowlaw, in a bid to find and kidnap the very greatest and brainwash them into serving as his assassins.  (Why he doesn't just kidnap the lot of them, and why he's going to so much trouble when he isn't exactly short of assassins, and indeed why Bison doesn't just assassinate people himself when he's practically unkillable, are questions the film doesn't even think about beginning to answer.)

So, yes, it's pretty stupid, and a thinly veiled excuse to give every character their moment and an opportunity, however tenuous, to show off their moves.  What rescues it, somewhat, is the standard of the animation, which is largely phenomenal, and in particular the backgrounds, which are probably the most beautiful and detailed I've ever seen - and should have been put to the service of a much better film.  The thing is, unless you're absolutely obsessed with a video game from more than two decades ago then a story strung together from fight after fight pales quickly.  And it helps not at all that the only character who even threatens to have an arc, Chun-Li, gets treated scummily on account of her gender: having suffered through a gratuitous shower scene and then been nearly murdered in her underwear (frustratingly the film's best fight scene, thanks to a real sense of danger lacking elsewhere) she spends the entire second half in a coma.  I mean, seriously?  With two female characters to work with, that was where they chose to go?  Nineties anime, sometimes you test me sorely.

I'd heard so many good things about Street Fighter 2: The Movie that I'd hoped there might be something there to appeal to even a non-fan like myself.  And there kind of is - that lavish animation, those gorgeous backdrops - but all told, it wasn't enough.  Still, it's hard not to recommend just a little, it has a definite nostalgic charm and it really does look wonderful in places.  Just don't expect even the faintest glimmer of a plot, that's all I'm saying.

Appleseed, dir: Kazuyoshi Katayama, 1988

What do you know, it's another Masamune Shirow adaptation; didn't I tell you he was everywhere?  Appleseed hails from the same year as the original Dominion Tank Police, and was itself also an OVA, though the version that Manga would eventually pass off had been - quelle surprise! - re-edited so that it looked like a movie, so long as your expectations of what a movie involved didn't extend to it being more than about an hour in length.  Or, you know, not awfully animated.

No, that's harsh.  Well, it isn't particularly - there's certain animation in Appleseed, such as the simple act of people walking, that's amongst the worst I've seen anywhere in anime - but I feel like it should be better than it is because, to my considerable astonishment, this represents early work by studio Gainax, who I've mentioned glowingly here before.  There are glimpses of talent, it has to be said, particularly when it comes to bringing Shirow's uniquely recognisable mecha designs to life.  But overall, Appleseed looks pretty shoddy, even by 1988 standards, and the score - full of tuneless eighties noodling - is flat out terrible.

So with not much to distinguish Appleseed on the technical front, we find ourselves left to judge largely on its story.  The translation is dismal and needlessly sweary, because Manga video, and so it's hard to judge the plot entirely on its own merits, but even with that caveat there's not a great deal going on here.  There's the core of an intriguing narrative, one that probes the notion of a flawed Utopian society and of benevolent dictatorships, but then that intriguing narrative is Shirow's original Manga, which this adapts with little apparent understanding of its subtleties.  As it stands, there's not much going on to appeal to the intellect, and what there is gets quickly hamstrung by a script that seems deeply muddy on its own themes.  Much hangs on the notion that Appleseed's futuristic paradise Olympus is a gilded cage, but the film fails to sell that notion at all, and in its absence it's not easy to understand why anyone would conspire so hard to blow up the last properly inhabitable place on the planet.

Where does that leave us?  Well, Appleseed certainly isn't horrible.  Passable is probably more the word.  And to be fair, it kept me fairly engaged throughout its running time, when I wasn't cringing at the stupid translation or the wonky animation.  Um.  No, this isn't a recommendation, isn't?  Probably one for hardcore Shirow fans and admirers of the sort of sci-fi shows where people in the far-distant future are still using faxes, I'm afraid.


I talked up top about taking the good with the dross, but this turned out to one of those basically terrible entries.  I swear, I don't plan this stuff at all.  Well, there's a fair chance that we'll do better next time around, with the caveat that I still have the sequel to Legend of the Overfiend to watch the next time I'm filled with self-hatred and a willingness to make my eyeballs want to retreat into my skull.  And, you know, Dominion Tank Police was pretty fun, so that's something.

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

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